Obama: ‘I could not be prouder’ of auto industry

Michael Martinez, and Michael Wayland

President Barack Obama used his visit to Detroit on Wednesday to spotlight the resurgence of the city and automotive industry, as well as do a bit of car shopping at the North American International Auto Show.

“There’s only one Detroit,” he said said during a speech at the United Auto Workers-General Motors Center for Human Resources on the city’s riverfront. “And if you’re looking for the world’s best cars and the workers who make those cars, you need to be in Detroit, Michigan. That’s why I’m here.”

The comments came after Obama joked about having to give his presidential limousine, a Cadillac known as “the Beast,” when his final term ends later this year. He said one of the reasons he came to Detroit was because he was in the market for a new vehicle. In response, several UAW members and others in attendance shouted suggestions for union-made cars and trucks that he should purchase.

The speech was a culmination of his trip to the Motor City that included lunch at Jolly Pumpkin in the city’s trendy Midtown neighborhood and a walk of the Detroit auto show floor with executives.

Obama received frequent applause and cheers during his speech, which included a number of audience interactions with UAW members and others in attendance. He spent much of his speech touting the $85 billion auto bailout, which he said saved the auto industry and helped not only Detroit but the economics of the entire country.

“What is true of Detroit is true of the country,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I came here … I want people to remember how far we’ve come.”

Obama took a shot at Republican candidates, saying: “When you hear people, I won’t say who, but when you hear people claiming that America’s declined, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re peddling fiction during a political season.”

During his visit to the auto show, Obama was led around the show floor for 30 minutes by show chairman Paul Sabatini and UAW President Dennis Williams, whom he called a “dear friend” during his speech.

The portion of the show floor Obama viewed was closed to the public. He first stopped at auto supplier ZF, which designs and develops sensors, processors and other devices that form the foundation for self-driving cars.

The president saw an example of how autonomous driving technology can be implemented to assist the driver with steering, braking and accelerating for safer driving. When he was shown a life-size acrylic car model that incorporates all the ZF components into one car, he remarked “that’s a cool-looking thing right here.”

He next visited Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, where he was shown a red plug-in hybrid model of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan unveiled at the show.

Next was the General Motors Co. stand, where he looked at the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, an all-electric car with an estimated range of 200 miles on a single charge and a top speed of over 90 mph.

He stopped to admire a yellow Corvette. “That looks all right. You know, it’s subtle,” he joked.

Obama last toured the Ford Motor Co. stand, where he was shown the latest model of the Ford Escape Hybrid, although the press pool was not given access to that part of the tour.

Earlier in the day, the president had lunch at Jolly PumpkinMayor Mike Duggan; Tom Kartsotis, founder of Shinola; Dr. Tolulope Sonuyi, an emergency medicine physician engaged with Detroit youth through violence prevention and intervention programs that are part of My Brother’s Keeper; and Teana Dowdell, autoworker at General Motors Co.’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant.

He then toured the nearby Shinola watch and bicycle store. Asked by reporters if he bought a watch, the president said, “I already had a Shinola.”

Help for industry, city

In late 2008, the U.S. auto industry was in trouble. Access to credit for auto loans dried up and sales plunged 40 percent. The industry shed over 400,000 jobs as both General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC were only weeks away from running out of cash and collapsing.

The Bush administration began the aid, extending loans to both automakers. Ford Motor Co. was able to save itself by mortgaging nearly every part of its business, including its iconic blue oval. The Obama Administration eventually offered $57 billion in additional taxpayer support, all of which has since been repaid.

During Obama’s presidency, the federal government has had a role in helping the city of Detroit, as well.

After Detroit filed for bankruptcy restructuring in July 2013, Obama created a federal coordinator and an interagency Detroit Working Group to help 20 federal agencies assist the community. The federal government has since invested $300 million in Detroit through grants and programs involving blight demolition, transportation and public lighting.

Among the federally supported projects tailored to Detroit’s needs has been $130 million in federal funds for blight removal, allowing the city to demolish more than 7,500 blighted buildings in fewer than two years. It was a Treasury Department redirection of unspent money from the 2009 Hardest Hit Fund mortgage aid program.

To begin illuminating Detroit’s dark streetlights (nearly half its inventory), the U.S. Department of Energy provided technical assistance to the Public Lighting Authority to install LED lights, with an estimated $3 million in annual cost savings for Detroit.

In addition, a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation allowed Detroit to purchase 80 new city buses so Detroit could run on a full bus schedule for the first time in decades.

Without the additional buses, the city could not have offered 24-hour bus service on some routes this week, including the No. 53 Woodward and No. 34 Gratiot, said Alexis Wiley, chief of staff to Duggan.

Federal advisers were instrumental to helping the city secure a Department of Labor grant for the city’s prisoner-reentry program and $8.9 million to invest in green infrastructure projects from the Department of Housing and Urban Development after the August 2014 floods.

Wiley said White House and agency staffers are in Detroit at least three days a week or constantly on conference calls with city employees.